TAMPA — For four months, Te'a Stone filled out online resumes for theme parks and chain stores.
She marched into fast-food restaurants, practically begging for a chance.
She called everybody she could think of and told them how hard-working she is.
The 18-year-old was looking for work at a tough time. Teen unemployment this summer is expected to reach a record 25 percent nationally. Navigating that climate was a job unto itself.
Then, some luck. At 9 a.m. last Tuesday, Te'a was woken up by her phone. A Burger King manager wanted to interview her. She rubbed her eyes and told him "Thank you, sir," and got up to get ready.
• • •
Te'a, who just graduated from Middleton High School, has a resume she made for a school assignment. It extols her time on the cheerleading squad and 3.0 GPA. It lists her bright smile under "Skills."
She isn't just competing with her peers. She's competing with her parents' peers and her parents' parents' peers. The recession turned minimum wage gigs into lifelines for a lot of folks. Te'a's GPA and her smile are going up against decades of experience and advanced degrees.
The rising minimum wage — now $7.31 in Florida — means employers are even more picky about whom they hire for jobs Te'a wants.
"By raising the minimum wage, I feel like you're essentially making it illegal for some of these teens to get a job," said Michael Saltsman, a research fellow at the nonprofit Employment Policies Institute in Washington.
Last week, Saltsman's institute released an analysis of 25 states showing that unemployment among 16- to 19-year-olds averages 25 percent when you count discouraged teens who have quit looking. In 10 states, including Florida, it tops 30 percent.
"Whether or not this is the worst summer on record, it's certainly shaping up to be a tough one for teens," Saltsman said.
• • •
Te'a didn't know all that when she got started in March.
In her free time, she popped into stores and restaurants. She submitted her resume to Busch Gardens online. A couple of her friends got in-person interviews that way. But Te'a didn't.
She went to Bank of America and learned there is a lengthy waiting period before applications are approved or denied. Te'a is still waiting.
At Little Ceasars, they told her to come back when a supervisor was there. She came back, but never met the right person.
At Burger King, she was told they only took applications online. So she went home, filled one out and went back to the restaurant. They told her she filled it out wrong.
Te'a's guidance counselor, Elmer Rhone, told her to stay optimistic. But inside, Rhone was worried.
"We used to always be able to connect them with people hiring," she said. "At least four or five kids by this time of year."
• • •
It was time for Te'a's interview.
She walked into Burger King and got behind a guy ordering a No. 6 combo meal.
She had thought about wearing heels, but her brother told not to overdo it. Instead she wore a gray shirt with lace on the sleeves and nice jeans.
The guy behind the counter wore a tie and a name tag: Johnny. He was the manager from the phone call.
Te'a waited, fiddled with her hair, looked around. The manager, Johnny Banks, told her to take a seat in the back.
When he joined her, Te'a reached up to shake his hand — firmly, but not too firmly. She remembered to smile, maintain eye contact, and answer questions without too much hesitation.
He asked her about school, about college, about why she wanted to work at Burger King. She told him she had a 3.0, wanted to study education and that Burger King was her favorite fast-food restaurant.
It was over in 10 minutes. Banks told Te'a to come back Saturday to interview with his assistant manager, Neil.
• • •
She showed up 15 minutes early. Nervous, but feeling like she actually had a shot. Again, she kept eye contact and smiled.
Is she okay with minimum wage?
What is she willing to do?
The assistant manager told her to come back in a couple of days. She could fill out her paperwork then.
He said they'd have a uniform ready for her, and she finally realized what had happened.
She starts today.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.